James Dyson (Malmesbury, UK)

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Lifetime achievement nominations:

James Dyson (Malmesbury, UK) has had over 130 inventions patented, one of the best-known and most economically successful being the Dyson bagless vacuum cleaner.

"To baglessly go …"

James Dyson – the vacuum cleaner king

At last, a man who really helps with the housework – James Dyson. He is the originator of an idea – the bagless vacuum cleaner – which sparked off a global revolution in the home appliance market. Friends tried to dissuade him – "But James, if anyone could make a vacuum cleaner that was so much better, Hoover or Electrolux would have invented it long ago" – when he took up the fight with the big companies. No one had ever questioned the basic principle of vacuuming since the technology was invented in 1901. No one, that is, until Dyson arrived.

Dyson had always been an unconventional thinker, querying and challenging things that others took for granted. His first invention is a case in point. In the early 1970s, while renovating an old farmhouse, he became increasingly frustrated by his wheelbarrow. It was heavy and unstable and continually sank in the mud. So he built a new one of bright red plastic, with a large ball instead of a wheel, which could travel over mud without sinking. The "Ballbarrow" was an instant hit in the UK, and although it didn't make Dyson rich, its success confirmed that he was on the right track. Battling against opposition was a habit acquired early in life. His intellectual parents had wanted him to study classics, but he preferred painting and drawing, bringing at least some colour into the drab life of the small Norfolk town where he grew up. After a less than glittering school career, he went off to London to study furniture design and then interior design. His ambition, as he has said, was always to make things, not just to have a job. And so he started to improve on household objects. Good, to him, is never good enough.

With his earnings from the Ballbarrow, Dyson built the Trolleyboat, a boat-launcher with ball wheels, and the Wheelboat, a boat with wheels. And then he hit on a new idea while cleaning his house: Why, he wondered, do vacuum cleaners lose suction so quickly? Because the bag becomes clogged with dust. His aim was quite simply "to design the most efficient vacuum cleaner the world had ever seen. A cleaner that gave constant suction." Five years later he had the solution: a bagless, funnel-shaped dust-particle accelerator which spins the dirt out from the air and collects it in a transparent bin. But the cost of building no less than 5 127 prototypes and filing patent applications nearly bankrupted Dyson's company. European and US manufacturers shied away from his "G-Force Dual Cyclone" cleaner for fear of upsetting the market and the makers of cleaner bags. Dyson was up to his neck in debt. Finally, it was Japan, with its fondness for high-tech gadgets, which latched onto his idea and embraced its colourful design. The 2 000-dollar vacuum cleaner became a "must-have" item.

Dyson used the licence fees from his invention to lay the foundations of a commercial empire. He started manufacturing the G-Force himself in 1993, and it became the UK's fastest-selling cleaner. His company grew at a breathtaking rate, increasing its turnover from GBP 2.4m to 210m in just four years. To date, Dyson has sold 10m appliances in 35 countries for an estimated GBP 3bn, and has filed 130 patent applications. The 59-year-old inventor is the UK's 37th-richest man. His inventions are found in the world's leading design museums, from California to Australia. And he recently landed his latest coup: a washing machine unlike any the world has ever seen before.

Instead of being a celebrated industrial designer and head of one of Europe's most successful manufacturing companies, James Dyson nearly went bankrupt. His idea for a bagless vacuum cleaner took the inventor to the brink of ruin. But he was determined not to give up, and his vacuum cleaner is now a market-leading product and a cult object among design aficionados. Dyson is regarded as the world's most creative maker of domestic appliances.

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